4 Big Data Lessons From House Of Cards

Saïd Radhouani, PhD

I’m a big fan of House of Cards, and every time there’s a new season, I can’t wait to watch it. I just finished the fourth season in three days, and I wanted to share some interesting facts about Big Data and Analytics.

Because I don’t want to ruin it for those who haven’t yet watched it, I will try as much as possible to not provide a lot of details.

Big Data Can Make Multimillion-Dollar Decisions Safer




Before talking about the content of House of Cards, let’s go back to the source and see how the show was produced. What most people might not know is that House of Cards is a direct product of Big Data analytics. Netflix is a data-driven company. They gather a tremendous amount of data from their users and make smarter decisions that ultimately make their users happier, by providing content they like.

In 2011, Netflix made a big gamble worth over $100 million. They outbid top cable networks for Media Rights Capital’s series House of Cards, exec produced and directed by David Fincher and exec produced by and starring Kevin Spacey. While this seemed like it was a big gamble, Netflix was actually making a very calculated bet. They had a high degree of confidence in the new House of Cards based on the combination of director, producer and stars. Jonathan Friedland, Chief Communications Officer, said:

Because we have a direct relationship with consumers, we know what people like to watch and that helps us understand how big the interest is going to be for a given show. It gave us some confidence that we could find an audience for a show like ‘House of Cards.’

As Netflix considered whether to invest in the show, they already knew from their data analytics that:

The British version of “House of Cards” had a big audience,
The Social Network, directed by David Fincher, had a big audience,
Users who watched the British version of “House of Cards” also watched Kevin Spacey films and/or films directed by David Fincher.
The combination of these three indicators gave Netflix enough confidence in the success of the new House of Cards series. In addition, they knew that they didn’t have to spend millions to engage the audience. Through their recommendation algorithms, they knew how to target accurately the audience that might be interested in Kevin Spacey or a political drama.

Big Data Is The New Secret Weapon

In season 4, Frank Underwood leads a battle against the Republican presidential nominee Will Conway. Both candidates have two things common: 1) they want to be president, 2) they use Big Data to win the electoral battle.

Conway’s team used a popular Search Engine (Pollyhop) to collect voters’ data in order to understand them, then brainwash them. Using People’s Data, Comway’s team managed to campaign directly to Pollyhop users based on their search habits and preferences. By leveraging data, they changed the search results and turned the candidate into whatever version the user is most likely to want to elect.

To counter Conway, Underwood’s team has a plan that involves a Data Scientist named Aidan MacAllan, who was the one who initially discovered Conway’s association with Pollyhop. With access to the National Security Agency, MacAllan analyzed the data and extracted useful insights about the electorate. Underwood’s team then started using these insights to manipulate the voters.

In both cases, Big Data was a very powerful yet dangerous tool. While data can contain a wealth of valuable insights that help understand voters’ problems and needs, it also can be used against them to manipulate and brainwash them. Depending on how it’s used, Big Data poses a very real threat to societies.

Gifted Data Scientists Are Weird

I admire gifted people and the way they can see and process things differently. While they have more processing power than average people, they can have inexplicable habits and may be somehow “weird.”

Aidan MacAllan was presented in House of Cards as the best Data Scientist in the US, and probably in the world. He is a perfect example of a “weird” gifted person. While he has incredible skills in analyzing data and turning it into useful insights, he has a weird character, especially when he was alone. The type of music he listened to and the way he danced were few examples of his weird character. Perhaps it takes a heightened intelligence to stray from the norm, but once they do, they become abnormal. Throughout history, this has been valid for great artists, scientists and successful business people.

I personally believe and accept that gifted people behave differently, and I always seek to have this kind of people on my team. Actually, when I’m hiring talents, I always ask the candidates how weird they are on a scale of 1 to 10. The higher the number, the higher the candidate’s chance is to be hired.

Big Data Is Powerful, But Timing Is Key

Season 4 of House of Cards also showed that Big Data is great but for it to be useful, timing is key.The terrorist group ICO took 3 American hostages and were negotiating with the US government. After the first call, the american authorities found out that the terrorists and the hostages are in the USA, but they couldn’t find their exact location. Everyone was working furiously to resolve the hostage situation and the time was running fast. The Data Scientist, Aidan MacAllan, was then asked to process cellphone tower data and find their hidden location.

With the huge volume of data and the tight deadline, it was impossible for MacAllen to find the location. He needed more time to process the data. The authorities managed to get him more time during the negotiations with the terrorists. MacAllan then had enough time to tune his algorithm and find the hidden hostage location. The FBI attacked the hideout, but it was too late – the terrorists were gone, with their hostage.

Data can contain answers to many questions, but in order to use it effectively, it must be analyzed in a timely manner. The analytics results need to be available when decisions need to be made. Having the right combination of people, process and technology doesn’t guarantee the effectiveness of Data-Driven decisions.


The success of House of Cards is a perfect example of how data can be used to make multimillion-dollar decisions with a high degree of confidence. If taken in a timely manner, data-driven decisions can give organizations an advantage over those who run on intuition.

Big Data brings new opportunities, but also new challenges. Someone said that data is the new oil. I’d go further and say that data is the new weapon – depending on how we use it, it can be dangerous for our society

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